Tag: spending

Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart

For the past few years I have charted the trends in American education spending and performance (see below). The goal is to see what the national data suggest about the productivity of our education system over time. Clearly, these data suggest that our educational productivity has collapsed: the inflation-adjusted cost of sending a student all the way through the K-12 system has almost tripled while test scores near the end of high-school remain largely unchanged. Put another way, per-pupil spending and achievement are not obviously correlated.

Not everyone is happy with these charts, and in this post I’ll respond to the critics, starting with the most recent: Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, an organization that honors the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. DiCarlo finds the chart “misleading,” “exasperating,” and seemingly designed to “start a conversation by ending it.” Since we’re actually having a conversation about the chart and what it shows, and since I’ve had countless such conversations over the years, perhaps we can agree that the last of those accusations is more of a rhetorical flourish than a serious argument.

How to Lie with Statistics: Florida School Spending Edition

Activists in Florida found a way to torture the state’s education spending data to make appear as though Florida is 50th in education spending. The only catch is that their rather unconventional method ranks Washington D.C. as 51st, despite the fact that D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil, putting it in first place for spending per pupil according to the U.S. Census Bureau (page 11, table 11). 

How did they accomplish this literally unbelievable statistical feat? As Patrick Gibbons explains at RedefinED, the activists have inappropriately seized on the U.S. Census Bureau’s “education revenues per $1,000 of personal income” figure. Holding all else constant, Florida could improve its ranking using that figure either by spending more on education or by its citizens becoming poorer. Gibbons crunched the numbers to see what it would take to put Florida in 24th place, just above the median, without increasing spending:

To reach the “above average” point on the spending-per-income statistic, Florida would need education revenues of $49.15 per $1,000 of personal income. Without spending a dime more, or less, on education, Florida could boost its ranking to 24th in the nation if its collective income simply shrank by 26 percent.

Florida would become THE POOREST state in the U.S., but we would have above-average education spending – at least according to this misleading metric. Something tells me nobody will be happy with those results.

Embedded in the activists’ use of this figure is the odd notion that it costs more to educate students from wealthier states than students from poorer states. Indeed, if every state had exactly the same “education revenues per $1,000 of personal income” then rich states would far outspend poor states, yet I suspect that the activists citing this figure would not be pleased.

PolitiFact Oregon “False” Rating of Wehby Claim … Is False

I was pleased to get an inquiry from PolitiFact Oregon recently about a controversy I knew nothing about. Alas, I must deny credit to Politifact’s use of the information I provided.

Monica Wehby, the Portland pediatric neurosurgeon challenging Senator Jeff Merkley (D), recently fired on the senator for his support of the Rebuild America Jobs Act (S. 1769 in the 112th Congress).

According to the Politfact Oregon write-up, Wehby described Merkley’s vote for the act as “typical of a Washington insider like Senator Merkley,” saying, “I would have voted no because this legislation would have cost the average American family $1,000 a year while making no significant impact to fix our infrastructure and roads.”

Is the cost figure true? My site WashingtonWatch.com was the source of the number that the Wehby camp used (actually $958.40).

I described the source of the number to the Politifact reporter in some detail:

WashingtonWatch.com does a net present value calculation on CBO scores, calculating as costs the amount that would have to be put in a bank account now to fund future taxes and spending, for example, and as savings the amount that would go into a bank account now based on expected tax reductions and spending cuts. We divide gross amounts by the number of people in the country (according to census figures) and then multiply by the size of the average U.S. family (3.14, if my memory serves). At the end of a Congress, we “freeze” the relevant figures, so the calculation for S. 1769 is based on a discount rate of 3.73%, a U.S. population of 315,085,045, and a national debt of $16,338,243,391,74.

The CBO score for S. 1769 (click “Read an analysis of the bill” on the bill’s page) shows revenues (taxes - a cost) of about $56.8 billion and outlays (spending - a cost) of $56.5 billion. That made S. 1769 a high-cost bill — it proposed increasing both taxes and spending — but it was fairly budget-neutral, increasing the average family’s share of the national debt by only about $40 per average family.

If Wehby claimed that the bill would have cost the average American family about $1,000 in new taxes, I think that is incorrect. It would have cost about $500 per family in new taxes and about $500 per family in new spending.

Wehby’s claim was not that it would cost $1,000 in new taxes, though, as the PolitiFact reporter said to me in his inquiry. It was that the bill “would have cost the average American family $1,000 a year.” That is a correct number, though the reporter did not catch or raise with me that the net present value calculation produces a one-time cost figure—not the cost per-year.

There are arguments against this methodology for calculating costs, which I noted to the reporter:

As the bulk of the revenues would have come from a surtax on people with a modified AGI above $1,000,000, I see an argument that this would not have come from “average families” in the “median” or “mode” sense. But our calculations are literal averages — the arithmetic mean — which is produced by dividing costs among all families in the U.S. That approach makes the most sense for outlays, as funds in the U.S. treasury can be thought of as “owned” by all the people, and expenses should be treated as falling on all of us. The average/arithmetic mean makes less sense when it comes to revenues because they often come from distinct sets of taxpayers, such as the relatively well off.

We use the method of calculating we do because there are upwards of 10,000 bills in every Congress and hundreds get CBO scores. We don’t know of a reliable or accurate way to calculate and report tax or spending incidence at scale — who actually pays and who actually receives tax dollars — in all these bills.

My conclusion: “The statement that the bill would have cost the average family $958.40 according to CBO figures is accurate because taxes and spending are each appropriately treated as costs and ‘average’ refers to the arithmetic mean.”

But that’s not what PolitiFact Oregon reported. To my surprise, I “faulted Wehby’s claim on two counts.”

The first involved the $958.40 figure itself. In reality, [Harper] said, only half of that would come in the form of new taxes. The remainder really doesn’t count since it’s in the form of new spending. And while it could be argued that new spending amounts to a long-term debit, the CBO’s own finding that the bill was budget-neutral negates that point.

I neither said nor implied that spending “really doesn’t count.” It counts. The methodology I use counts it. And, while I pointed out that the bill was relatively budget-neutral, candidate Wehby didn’t make any claim about the budgetary effects of the bill. A bill can cost a lot and be budget-neutral. This one did and was.

The second point that the Politifact report attributed to me “was that ‘average families’ would not have borne the burden of any new costs because language in the bill made clear that it would be financed by a 0.7 percent surtax on millionaires.”

That wasn’t my point at all. Here’s what I wrote to the reporter:

It’s important and relevant to many, though, that the incidence of the taxes would have been on relatively rich people. The $500 in taxes would not have hit the “typical” (median/mode) American or Oregonian family. It’s up to you whether you believe it’s expected in the context of Wehby’s statement to get into tax incidence. You can ding her for that omission if your judgment is that it’s something she should have included.

It’s not something I faulted Wehby for. I called the statement “accurate” and left the question of subtlety around tax incidence to the reporter (thinking to myself, “Yeah, right. A political campaign is supposed to get into ‘tax incidence’…”).

It turns out that what a bill “costs” is hard to figure out when the bill has both revenue and spending measures. I’ve given it a lot of thought over years and come up with a pretty good methodology (explained and caveated at WashingtonWatch.com’s “about” page.) It’s disappointing when this thinking, and the work you put in writing up an issue for a reporter, comes out this badly misunderstood, and your own views mischaracterized.

With regret, I rate Politifact Oregon’s rating of Wehby’s claim False.

Philly Schools—Is Money Really the Problem?

House majority leader Eric Cantor is in Philadelphia today to pick up Attorney General Eric Holder’s gauntlet. Holder’s DOJ has filed suit to shut down a Louisiana school voucher program that serves an overwhelmingly African American population, on the grounds that… it’s bad for African Americans. Cantor vows to fight the DOJ if Holder doesn’t drop the suit, and he’s delivering his message at a Philly charter school serving mostly African American kids—one that has about six times as many applicants as it has places.

Apart from its proximity to DC, Philly might seem an odd location for Cantor’s presser, but the city of brotherly love is going through an educational drama of its own. The Philadelphia School District has had budget problems for years. It’s seen horrendous violence, plummeting enrollment, and commensurate staff layoffs and school closures. Most media accounts bewail lack of funding as the key problem. Salon.com recently ran a story with the subhead: “Pennsylvania’s right-wing governor drains public schools of basic funds.” CBSNews laments “the same old problem: not enough money.”

What those and all other Philly school district stories I’ve seen have in common is that they fail to say how much the district actually spends per pupil. Not having attended journalism school, I missed whatever class teaches education reporters to omit the single most important fact in their stories, so allow me try to fill in the blank.

A quick Google search reveals that Philly’s 2013-14 budget is $3.03 billion (p. 50), of which $862 million is for charter schools. The district serves 136,000 students in its regular public schools and another 63,000 in charter schools. So the regular public schools, the ones that are being “systematically murdered” by budget cuts, spend $15,941 per pupil. That’s about $3,000 more than the national average. It’s also $1,600 more than the day tuition at Temple University. The city’s charter schools receive about $2,300 less than the regular public schools.

That’s not to say that the district’s classrooms are fully stocked with supplies or that the city’s best teachers are paid what they’re worth. What it does suggest is that the cause of those problems may have less to do with the amount of funding available than with the way it is allocated. After all, Washington, DC spends around $29,000 per pupildouble what Philly does—and it performs worse in both reading and math by the 8th grade.

School Spending Transparency Favors School Choice

In a post at RedefinED Online calling for more sunshine on the Sunshine State’s public school spending data, I discussed the broader implications of financial transparency:

Awareness about public school spending has implications for the public discourse over public education. A Harvard University survey shows the public vastly underestimates how much public schools cost, which affects the public’s spending preferences. When citizens are informed about the true cost of public education, they are significantly less likely to support increasing spending.

Likewise, the widespread misperception that private schools cost more per pupil than public schools likely affects the public’s support for school choice programs. A greater awareness that school choice programs can save money would likely translate into greater public support for school choice. Indeed, Florida policymakers have wisely sought to demonstrate exactly that. The Florida Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) estimated Florida taxpayers save $1.44 for every dollar of revenue reduced by the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

The central purpose of school choice is to provide an education that best meets the needs of individual children, especially to those whose choices are limited. Diverse children require a diverse array of learning options. However, as with any public policy, cost is a factor. Research has shown that when the fiscal benefits of school choice are emphasized, support for choice increases. 

The widespread misperception that school choice programs would cost more than the status quo is therefore both a problem and an opportunity. The misperception currently dampens support for school choice, but it also means that support would increase with greater awareness about the true cost of public schools and the savings that school choice programs provide to taxpayers. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant and it is also necessary for growth. Those who want to see school choice programs grow should advocate for greater transparency in education spending.

 

Will the Administration Make a Run at Transparency?

Last fall, I reported that the Obama administration lagged the House of Representatives on transparency. The conclusion was driven by a study of the quality of data publication regarding key elements of budgeting, appropriating, spending, and the legislative process. (Along with monitoring progress in these area, we’ve been producing data to show that it can be done, to produce a cadre of users, and to simply deliver government transparency at a less plodding pace.)

There are signs that the administration may make a run at improving its transparency record. Buried deep in the FY 2014 budget justification for the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service, it says that funds will support “government-wide data standardization efforts to increase accuracy and transparency of Federal financial reporting.” That means the public may get better access to where the money goes – outlays – in formats that permit computer-aided oversight.

In parallel, a Performance.gov effort called the Federal Program Inventory says that, in May of 2014, it will publish a Unique Federal Program Inventory number (pg. 4-5) for each federal program, along with agency IDs and bureau IDs. This may be the machine-readable federal government organization chart whose non-existence I have lamented for some time.

If this sounds jargon-y, you’re normal. Think of federal spending as happening on a remote jungle island, where all the inhabitants speak their own language. On Federal Spending Island, no visitor from the U.S. mainland can understand where things are there, or who is saying what to whom.

True machine-readable data will turn Federal Spending Island into a place where English is spoken, or at least a some kind of Federal Spending-English dialect that makes the movement of our tax dollars easier to track.

How Transparent Is Your State’s Department of Education?

When a business applies for a loan, the bank needs to know the business’s operating expenses and its overhead to make an informed decision about whether to grant the loan. A business that acquired a loan while understating or hiding some categories of its expenses would be in serious trouble. However, the government seems to operate by a different set of rules.

A new report from the Cato Institute, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?“ finds that state departments of education routinely understate the cost of public schools and often fail to report key spending categories. Meanwhile, a Harvard survey finds that the public thinks that public schools cost half as much as they really do. Are state education departments contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education?

Find out more at Education Next.

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